RACINE — Boone County Ambulance Authority board members voted unanimously to rescind its June 2012 vote to allow its director to secure a $103,000 personal loan from the agency.
“Due to the fact that the board was in error to approve the loan for the purpose of helping the director to buy into the EMS retirement system we are rescinding that vote this evening,” said Harold Green, president of the authority’s board of directors.
Green said Boone County Ambulance Authority Director Randy Lengyel secured the $103,000 personal loan from the agency after checking with a local attorney and having a contract drawn up.
However, all board members, expect for president Green and the vice president, voted on approve the loan without seeing the contract or knowing any details about it.
“I want to apologize to every citizen in Boone County,” said board member George Parsons. “I feel I owe it to the county. I did not see the contract or the details and would have never voted for a loan of that amount or under those terms, if I would have known the details.”
Parsons said he believes this was the plan of the president, vice president and director.
“This contract should have been presented to the entire board,” he said. “Most of us never saw it. We didn’t realize what we were voting for and for that I apologize. If this had not come to light, I don’t think it would have ever been made public.”
Green says Lengyel told him it was not illegal.
Meanwhile, Boone Prosecuting Attorney Keith Randolph has directed Lengyel to pay back the no-interest loan in full by Sept. 30 – or face possible charges.
Randolph is also the attorney for the Boone County Commission and says there is some misinformation out there about the commission’s role in governing and operting the ambulance authority.
“West Virginia Code Chapter 7 Article 15 is very specific regarding the county creating the ambulance authority and appointing board members, but it is extremely limited in other areas,” he explained. “The code creates the authority as a separate public corporation. The commission does not approve vehicles, buy gas, or other daily operations of the authority. That is done by the authority board and its director.”
Many in the public have called for the removal of the board and the director, but Randolph says that is a process and the current investigations into the matter are still ongoing.
Currently, there are ongoing investigations by the state Legislature’s Commission on Special Investigations, a filing has been made with the state Ethics Commission and the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is also still investigating and in discussion with the county commission, according to Randolph.
“There will be a request made for a state audit of the ambulance authority’s records as well,” he added.
In an interview with the Gazette-Mail last week, Lengyel said he would reimburse the ambulance authority immediately.
“I’m paying it back now – in full,” Lengyel told the newspaper. “Everything’s going to be taken care of. It will all be paid back, and there won’t be an issue.”
Lengyel allegedly persuaded ambulance authority board members to loan him $103,000 so he could switch from the West Virginia state employees retirement plan to more lucrative plan set up for emergency medical service workers. Under the loan’s terms – which all but two board members say they never saw – Lengyel agreed to pay off the no-interest loan in monthly installments of $350 after he retired.
Under state law, the ambulance board had no legal authority to make a personal loan – “let alone a personal loan to an employee,” according to a letter sent by the Boone Prosecuting Attorneys Office to Lengyel on July 31.
In 2012, Lengyel asked then-Delegate Josh Stowers, D-Lincoln, to introduce legislation that would allow ambulance directors across the state to bolster their retirement benefits, Stowers confirmed last week with the Charleston newspaper.
The bill gave a one-year window for directors to switch from the Public Employees Retirement System to the Emergency Medical Services Retirement System. The EMS plan comes with significantly higher monthly retirement payments. EMS plan recipients also can retire and start collecting payments 10 years earlier than state employees.
“Randy approached me about wanting to buy into the EMS retirement system,” Stowers told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “My job was to open the system to allow someone to buy back into something that may be more beneficial as long as the state was due what it was due. How he acquired those monies, I wasn’t a part of.”
Stowers resigned from the Legislature to take a job as chief deputy to state Treasurer John Perdue in July 2013, three months before the Boone ambulance board approved the personal loan.
“Obviously, I don’t think he should have acquire the money in a way that may have been inappropriate,” Stowers said.
The West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates passed Stowers’ bill, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed it into law.
Lengyel was the only ambulance director in West Virginia to take advantage of the new law and switch retirement plans the following year.
Many ambulance directors signed up for the EMS retirement plan when it started in 2007, but Lengyel wasn’t working at the Boone Ambulance Authority at the time. Directors weren’t allowed to buy into the system again until Stowers’ bill passed five years later.
Green said the Lengyel is in the process of getting a personal loan from a bank to pay the money back in full and then it would be deposited into the authority’s general fund.
“No levy money was used,” Green added. “This was money the authority had in its general fund from billing for services.”
The Boone County Ambulance Levy has never failed and Green said he hoped this would not change.
“We have lost levy collections revenue due to the drop in coal severance tax money and the loss of coal mining properties and equipment in the county,” Green explained.
While the authority is down $22,000 this month alone in levy collections revenue and down approximately $160,000 from the previous year, they are making more money from billing for services than ever before.
“We are in great shape financially,” Green said.
West Virginia House of Delegates 23rd District representative from Boone County Joshua Nelson said the entire incident shows the signs of corruption.
“Before I was elected to the House, a previous Legislature and legislators drafted a bill that allowed the current director of the B.C.A.A. to buy into a retirement system that was not designed for him that was more lucrative,” Nelson said. “This retirement system was meant for the workers. This particular piece of legislation had a one year window to allow for this. Just the fact that a bill was written, passed, and signed into law to benefit so very few individuals should have thrown up a red flag. I would have never supported this type of legislation, nor will I now.”
Nelson believes administrative action should be taken to ensure that it is fixed.
“The great people of the B.C.A.A. do not deserve to have their pension money robbed from them simply because a law was passed,” he said. “It is important to remember that just because something is law, does not make it ethical. This is absolute cronyism. In Boone County we value what is right.”
Randolph said the county has the power to appoint or re-appoint board members, but he has recommended that they let all of the investigations be completed and all the facts in the matter be presented before making any decisions.
“To remove board members under West Virginia Code Chapter 6 Articles 6 and 7 for all appointed officials with fixed terms,” he said. “The director can only be removed by the authority board.”
There was no indication by the board members of the authority that they would consider removing Lengyel from his position.
“We are taking in all the comments and also waiting for the results of the onging investigations,” Green said.
Several members of the public and workers at the authority gave comments during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“The way this entire thing was handled is unethical and should have never taken place,” said Jane Epling. “The director and the entire board should be ashamed of themselves.”
Jared Gore, a supervisor at the authority, said the board should be more transparent.
“The public and the workers want to know the truth about this loan,” he said. “I was told one thing and then it came out as something else. It has destroyed my integrity with fellow workers.”
Richard Smith, a paramedic at the authority, said he doesn’t understand why the board would give a personal loan to a director that had only been there for five years.
“The public has lost faith in this ambulance authority,” he said. “People are talking about getting petions to remove the director.”
Charlene Perry, also a paramedic at the authority, said fear of retaliation and moving personnel around have kept many others from speaking out.
“I just want to know the truth about all of this,” she said.
Chase Hill said he didn’t understand how the authority did not have the money for a station in Julian, but has the money to loan to a director to help him enhance his retirement plan.
“It just doesn’t make any sense to most people,” he said.
It is also rumored that the B.C.A.A. board is looking to buy property for a new building in the Van area from a family member of one of the directors.
Randolph confirmed this fact and said the state Ethics Commission had already made an advisory opinion that purchasing the property was not against the rules or unethical and that the board member could vote on it and the property could be purchased.
“I am not against them purchasing property in the Van area, but I am against purchasing it from a family member of one of the directors,” Delegate Nelson said.
Randolph said the county commission was currently in discussions about the situation, but would not make any decisions until all the facts were in and the investigations completed.
“Steps are being taken and one investigation is near completion,” he said. “It could take some time for all the investigations and audits to be completed.”
Randolph said he has give no advise to the authority board.
“I have had no discussion with them,” he said. “They have the right to have their own attorney.”
Fred Pace is an editor for Civitas Media. He can be reached at 304-369-1165, ext. 1661, in Madison; at 304-752-6950, ext. 1729 in Logan; by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @fcpace62 on Twitter.